Cast: Harrison Ford, Omar Sy, Dan Stevens, Karen Gillan, Bradley Whitford
Director: Chris Sanders
Writer: Michael Green
The Call of the Wild by Jack London is, as the title would suggest, the story of a civilised dog reverting to the more primitive, instinctual nature of its species, the descendants of wolves, in order to survive the perils of the wild. The Call of the Wild, the 2020 film directed by Chris Sanders, is the tale of an adventure shared by a man and his dog and the intrinsic bond they form along the way. The movie does make several references to this theme of ancestral memory and the innate animal nature of domesticated beasts but there is a whole chasm of difference between a film stating its themes and actually living up to them. It’s the reason why a war film that claims to be anti-war while still depicting scenes of battle in thrilling or glorious ways (Hacksaw Ridge comes to mind) rings hollow. Film is first and foremost a visual medium which is why the visual storytelling always trumps whatever is in the script. On paper The Call of the Wild can be read as a story that is thematically in keeping with the Jack London book, but on screen it is to difficult to reconcile Buck’s embrace of his natural, primal spirit with a CGI design that has been devised to make him feel more human than animal.
Buck is an oversized hound living a comfy life in late 19th century California with the wealthy Judge Miller (Bradley Whitford) as his master. He’s well liked around the small town, for the most part, but he has a wild streak that nobody has ever been able to tame. The ground trembles with his every step, stray rabbits send him into a frenzy, and it seems that even the judge’s stately manor and tracts of land aren’t enough to contain him. Now, this is at the height of the Klondike Gold Rush where big, strong dogs were in high demand to pull sleds for prospectors and so Buck is kidnapped (dognapped?) and shipped to the Yukon to be sold off. Confused, afraid, and totally out of his element, Buck is made privy for the first time in his life to the cruelties of the outside world as he suffers beatings and malnourishment at the hands of his captors. As Buck is bought and passed on between multiple owners, including the French-Canadian courier Perrault (Omar Sy) and his partner Françoise (Cara Gee), a rich and cruel gold hunter called Hal (Dan Stevens), and finally the dejected John Thornton (Harrison Ford), he grows accustomed to life in the northern wilds and proves himself an adept sled dog, a worthy pack leader, and a faithful friend. The further Buck gets from civilisation, the more he feels the call of a force greater than himself beckoning him onwards.
This film marks the live-action debut for Sanders, whose previous credits include such animations as Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. The influence his previous work has had is present in his construction of the film’s reality, which often feels more like a cartoon than real life. The physics of the universe is loose enough that it allows an elasticity in Buck’s movements; he can swing as swiftly and agilely as a Jellicle Cat, leap overwhelmingly improbable heights, and tumble with exaggerated heaviness. Then there’s the animated design of the dogs which departs from the Disney model of expressionless photorealism into something a bit more anthropomorphic that shoves the film straight into the uncanny valley. The movie is grounded enough in reality that the animals never talk verbally to one another, but otherwise their methods of expression and communication are so sophisticated and complex that they thrust the film straight into the realm of fantasy. Buck can express scepticism, amusement or concern with just a raise of his eyebrow, carry out intricate conversations and disputes with the other dogs through looks and barks, and even has a concept of honour and morality that he adheres to throughout. This would be easier to go along with in a fully animated film where there is more room for animals to receive humanised depictions, but in this live-action film Buck’s portrayal is just clumsy and awkward because he never comes across as a real dog.
The first half of the film is this odd mismatch of tones as we’re treated to quite a sobering, harsh tale of animalistic survival (toned down by Disney for a PG rating of course) with flights of whimsy and slapstick hijinks scattered throughout. One second we have Buck playfully chasing a rabbit in a decidedly non-lethal manner, the next he’s fighting for his life in a rather vicious duel with a rival dog, and the next moment after that we’re invited to stare in awe at his spiritual ascendancy to a state of bestial heritage. There’s a way to make these contrasting ideas work in harmony, but the movie’s inability to reconcile its family-friendly leanings and over-animated hero to the grittier and more mystical elements at play, including a shadowy wolf that appears before Buck as the manifestation of his call to the wild, doesn’t come close. Things do pick up in the second half where we get to enjoy some picturesque scenes of the Yukon landscape and Harrison Ford’s most sensitive performance in years. As a mourning father attempting to escape his woes, whether through the cold or the bottle, Ford is more vulnerable than his usual roles as rogues, vigilantes and heroes have ever allowed him to be and he sells it with every weighted line delivery and gentle yet wounded smile.
The world really didn’t need another movie of the Disney mode with its cutesy computer-animated characters and saturated schmaltz. In fact, a film that could offer children the kind of darkness and bite that animated movies in the 1980s were wont to offer (back when ‘Parental Guidance’ actually meant something) while also allowing for the kind of quiet contemplation you get in Studio Ghibli movies would have been a welcome break indeed. The Call of the Wild doesn’t trust its audience enough to be that kind of film however and instead chooses to keep things light with easy morals, slapstick humour, and a moustache-twirling villain. There is some charm to be had in watching a soft-hearted Harrison Ford bonding with a dog and beholding some of the wonders of the wild, but there are larger ideas behind this film that it never has the nerve to try and explore. When the movie looks like it might show something genuinely daring, it steps back and takes the easier, lighter path instead. There’s a scene where Buck and John must brave these ferocious rapids in their little canoe en route to their destination. Yet despite being knocked to and fro by the waves and barely maintaining control in their descent down the waterfall, John gets not one drop of water on him. While you may believe that there are dangers to be faced in the wilds, you won’t for a second believe that these characters are actually in danger until in the third act when it becomes clear that the story is going to end in a certain way. Ultimately, that’s all this movie really is: harmless.